How Did Jesus and His Immediate Followers Interpret Scripture?

In the previous paper we explored two extremes to the way Christians read scripture. We explored the history and benefit of the Scripture Alone doctrine, and we also explored the history and benefits of reading the Bible as a historical document. In both cases we looked at examples of people who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. We suggested that these two extremes of Biblical interpretation act as two sides of a pendulum, and that nobody is completely on one side or the other. In this paper we are going to explore further.  We are going to look at Jesus and His immediate followers, including Paul, and ask what side of the pendulum their interpretation tends toward. In order to do this well, we will also ask the same question of the groups that surrounded them, the Pharisees, the Sadusees, and the sect of The Circumcision. 

We have seen that those who emphasize the doctrine of Scripture Alone also tend to believe that the simplest reading of a Biblical passage is always best. On the other side we have seen that those who believe that the Bible should be interpreted as a historical document tend to see scripture as far more nuanced. These are the two markers we are going to use as we explore the apostles’ doctrine as laid out in the New Testament. Are they teaching that the simplest reading of scripture is always best, or are they drawing out nuance based on a wider reading of scripture, historical information, and culture?

Excerpts From the Sermon on the Mount

In chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus explores several laws in the old testament and their implications. As we read His teaching lets ask ourselves is Jesus drawing out a literal interpretation, or a nuanced interpretation.

21  “You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22  But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause § will be in danger of the judgment. Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ * will be in danger of the council. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

Matthew 5:21-22

 6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image.

Genesis 9:6

In this first example Jesus elaborates on a clear concept in the Hebrew Bible. You shall not murder. This command is repeated in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Jesus then refers to an older saying from the story of Noah, Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His own image. Where the literal tendency for interpreting this text would be that because man is made in the image of God, he has authority to Judge. Jesus points out that when man insults his brother, or worse calls his brother a stoopid and immoral man they are in a sense killing their own brother, separating him from the image of God that is the true core of his identity. 

27  “You have heard that it was said, § ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ 28  but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29  If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.* 30  If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.

Matthew 5:27-30

Here Jesus continues his elaborate commandments. Exodus 20:8 says, “you shall not commit adultery.” He draws out meaning from Biblical stories of lust that ended in sin or tragedy. All of them begin with the male “seeing” perhaps we could say fixating. The sons of God who saw the daughters of men, The young man that raped Jackobs daughter and got his whole family killed. Judah and Tamar, Amnon and a different Tamar, David and Bathsheba. This is no means an exhaustive list. These are the Biblical stories Jesus is referring to as He elaborates and suggests that lust is a type of adultery in itself.

38  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39  But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40  If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. 41  Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42  Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-41

19  If anyone injures his neighbor, it shall be done to him as he has done: 20  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. It shall be done to him as he has injured someone.

Leviticus 24:15

Here again Jesus elaborates on a commandment from the Hebrew Bible. “ An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In its day this commandment had been very forward thinking. It headed off escalating revenge by limiting retribution. In the first century many Jews were primed for a fight, they had been under the oppression of Rome for nearly a hundred years and felt justified in striking back. Jesus however is calling us to something higher. Evan so he is not saying something new to the Bible. The most famous example is of this fact is Proverbs 25:21-22

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat.

If he is thirsty, give him water to drink;

22 for you will heap coals of fire on his head,

and Yahweh will reward you.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible this truth is taught in story. Think of Joseph and Daniel, especially, though many others could be sighted. Examine the Prophet Jeremiah, when He was speaking to Judaiah, just before the exile.

7  Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

Jeremiah 29:7

As we examine Jesus’s teaching on the Hebrew Bible, we find that He delves beyond the simplest reading of scripture. He seeks to expose the heart behind the Laws that in the first century and still so often today, hinder humanity from entering into the heart of God.

How Did Paul Interpret the Hebrew Bible?

In examining Jesus’s teaching, we are treading on the most sacred ground, He is God after all so if He chose to draw out nuance we may ask, what does that have to do with us? Paul however is a somewhat more approachable figure. Let’s explore His writings and His life and seek to see what side of the pendulum he tended towards.

Perhaps the best place to start is Paul’s teaching on circumcision. For Paul, as the Apostle to the Gentiles, this was an incredibly central issue. For the Jews, and for the majority of the Hebrew Bible, circumcision was central to Jewish identity as the people of God. Paul however, with the blessing of the Apostles in Jerusalem taught that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be part of the people of God. Key to our purposes, Paul did so teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.

9  Is this blessing then pronounced only on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. 10  How then was it counted? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. 11  He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they might be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might also be accounted to them. 12  He is the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had in uncircumcision.

Romans 4:9-12

4  Behold, Yahweh’s word came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir.” 5 Yahweh brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So your offspring will be.” 6  He believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness. 7  He said to Abram, “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.”

Genesis 15:4-7

Paul in Romans looks back on the faith of Abraham and shows that Abraham’s faith and righteous standing before God proceeded his circumcision. He takes this nuance of scripture and shows how it applies to Gentiles. He points out that circumcision had to do the covenant God made with the Isrealite people, through whom all the nations would be blessed. It was only two chapters later after Genesis 15 that Abraham was told that anyone who was not circumcised would be cut off from his people.

14  The uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17:14

Paul reaches beyond the letter of the law, and draws our attention to those who were righteous before God before the covenant with Abraham, including Abraham himselfs, but also Able, Enosh, Enoch, and Noah.

For Paul circumcision is as nothing. He can point to the new consonant in promised in Jeremiah:

31 “Behold, the days come,” says Yahweh, “that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, 32  not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which covenant of mine they broke, although I was a husband to them,” says Yahweh. 33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says Yahweh:

“I will put my law in their inward parts,

and I will write it in their heart.

I will be their God,

and they shall be my people.


They will no longer each teach his neighbor,

and every man teach his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh;’

for they will all know me,

from their least to their greatest,” says Yahweh,

“for I will forgive their iniquity,

and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Paul can look at this prophecy in Jeremiah, and write in Ramans:

28  For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; 29  but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:28-29

Here we have seen that Paul’s reading of scripture is highly nuanced. He flatly rejects what to the Circumcision Party must have seemed the simplest reading of scripture, because it was getting in the way of the heart of scripture. Christians were being deceived to think that faith was less important than physical acts. Beyond calling for faithfulness to scripture, Paul was calling for faithfulness to the heart of God revealed in scripture.

This is why Paul could become all things to all men. He could say in Galatians that he wished that those who were trying to make them follow the letter of the law concerning circumcision would just emasculate themselves(Gal 5:12) and quit protruding. While in another place He could take the half Jewish man Timothy and circumcise him. (Acts 16) Paul was motivated by love for God and love for man. His actions and teaching were rooted in the heart of the written word, not in the letter of the law. 


What we have seen in sampling both Jesus and Paul is that the new testament authors favored a highly nuanced reading of scripture. They saw the whole scope of scripture as important, and the letter of the law did not take president over the truth revealed in Biblical stories and broader readings of scripture. We find that their reading of the Bible tended to be much more wholistic and much less focussed on key verses, instead favoring key stories and Biblical concepts often only revealed through deep reflection on the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

Once again we are faced with a dilemma. The New Testament is the Inspired word of God, do we dare to interpret the Bible the same way that Jesus, Paul and other authors did? Or does all Nuance stop with them?

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